August 2017

Women Entrepreneurs: How Women in the Lowcountry are Turning Great Ideas into Great Businesses...and Their Secrets to Success

Author: Lucy Rosen

It’s an exciting time to be a woman entrepreneur. Whether you are thinking about starting a business or are a new entry to the entrepreneurial scene, the “golden age” for women entrepreneurs has finally begun. Recent statistics, in fact, show that women now make up 40 percent of new entrepreneurs in the U.S., which is the highest percentage since 1996.

With women’s entrepreneurship rates continuing to rise, there will be countless more women start-ups in the years ahead throughout the U.S. as well as right here in the Lowcountry. Many will not only make it, but soar. Others may face barriers and obstacles they hadn’t expected. And, unfortunately, some may never get off the ground.

So why do some women entrepreneurs soar while others struggle? Although no two businesses are exactly alike, women today can gain important insight about female entrepreneurship from well-known women entrepreneurs throughout the country as well as from the positive role models of some highly successful women entrepreneurs right here in our own backyard.

Charlene Riikonen is one such example, her story beginning in Bangladesh. Seeing firsthand the devastating effects of dehydration, Riikonen (who was working at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh known as the ICDDRB) learned of the discovery of oral rehydration solutions (ORS)—scientifically formulated combinations of a carbohydrate, certain salts and water—that have saved millions of lives from deadly diseases such as cholera. In 1993, nearly 10 years after learning about these efforts and being involved on the research/educational side, Riikonen formed Cera Products, Inc., established with the goal of developing an advanced solution that would work even better and more efficiently than the standard glucose-based solution that was developed in the 1960s and 1970s. She decided to focus her small business on rice-based oral rehydration solutions for several reasons: rice works better than simple sugars, and most people are not allergic to it. The business was created with the goal of saving lives and reducing the effects of dehydration.

Much of the early success of Cera Products came from Riikonen’s ability to be flexible enough to change her business plan as needed. “I wrote the initial business plan for Cera Products Inc. with the idea of manufacturing the exceptional rice-based ORS, which I named Ceralyte, and getting it to the millions of children and families overseas who are devastated every year by the cycle of poverty, illness and disasters, with dehydration from diarrhea one of the top three causes of death in children,” she said. “However, I changed that focus after learning two important facts: first, the countries and prospective clients in the Third World would not be able to afford our U.S. product. We still help there, but with the partnerships of charities working in the field rather than selling to those areas directly. I also learned early on about the level of dehydration in our own country from a variety of illnesses in both the very young and the elderly and the military. And while there was a ready-to-drink ORS on the market, it was, and still is, made with simple sugars instead of rice, for which two got patents. With the help of a number of key individuals, including physicians and the head of economic development for the state of Maryland, Cera Products got a grant for the first significant funds that enabled the company to have a website, proper packaging and marketing materials. My husband helped the company manage finances and gave a lot of moral support. With all that help and guidance, I was able to successfully launch my company in 1993,” she said, recalling that her first sale of Ceralyte was $7 and noting that she wished she had saved and framed the paperwork from that first sale.

As a role model for other women launching their own businesses, Riikonen offers important advice for women business owners in all stages of the start-up process: “Believe in yourself, but surround yourself with positive and capable people in a variety of fields. And while you listen to them, you make the decision as to direction,” she stressed. “Don’t be afraid to change direction, and keep looking to the future. My husband was such a help in this way, and when our finances were not so good, he helped me look beyond that to focus instead on what could be.”

For Millie Burke, founder and president of Lowcountry Linens, launching and growing her woman-owned-and-run business is not only about hard work and strong determination, but also about the instincts and business moves, often helped by “women’s intuition.” She launched her company, which provides hand-painted linens of all types (tea towels, napkins, table runners, placemats and more) to more than 400 retailers in the United States, as well as abroad, at around the same time as she was raising her two small children (not an unfamiliar story, as women entrepreneurs often give birth to businesses and children around the same time). She credits using her own instinct as a key component of success.

“I think women are wired so differently when it comes to intuition,” she said. “In a business like mine, it’s important to be able to predict and understand what will appeal to my customer. I have to act quickly to meet the seasonal deadlines, and this is where intuition really comes into play. I think a man—not all obviously but many—may tend to hesitate and evaluate. There’s just not much time in my industry to do this, since it’s constantly changing.”

As with most women entrepreneurs, Burke also pointed to the importance of multi-tasking as a key to success. “Multi-tasking is so important, and a must in my business since I have so many things going on at once,” she said. Having an exceptional team is also one of the biggest keys to her success, she said, praising her “fabulous group of sales reps on the road,” who are all women, as well!

Burke defines success as reaching a point where you enjoy what you do for a living and knowing that you’ve created a product (through a lot of trial and error) that appeals and sells to your customers. “Since my goal was to start and grow a national brand right off the bat, creating awareness of my brand was critical, which meant a larger presence and a louder voice in the marketplace through social media, a web presence, and great sales reps who were able to open doors to sales,” she said. “I’ve learned so much through my own determination and knowing that if I need to learn it, I better get to it. Work has never been an issue for me, and I’ve worked since I was 15 years old. I was an athlete growing up and all through college, and that competitive drive has never left me. I rarely give up when challenged with a new design request, as frustrating as it can be sometimes.”

As a word of advice to other entrepreneurs, Burke stressed the two goals of most importance to her that she works towards every day: 1) Don’t restrict yourself; and 2) Keep pushing forward and don’t look back.

According to a recent study on women entrepreneurs from KPMG, addressing the talents that women business leaders believe are most important to their success, five of the key traits exhibited by successful women entrepreneurs are: persistence, the courage to overcome obstacles, determination, balance, and a positive attitude. As successful women entrepreneurs, Riikonen and Burke are perfect examples of how these traits can help catapult a great business idea to great success. And they certainly are not alone, with new women-owned businesses launching and succeeding throughout the Lowcountry at a greater rate than ever.

As with all start-ups, there are sure to be challenges, bumps and maybe even some roadblocks along the way. But as women entrepreneurs throughout the Lowcountry and the U.S. can attest, when your business takes flight and soars, there is perhaps no greater feeling in the world.

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